The family of an Air Force veteran who died after suffering fire ant bites at a Department of Veterans Affairs long-term care facility near Atlanta is suing the U.S. government and a pest control company.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Atlanta federal court, claims that Joel Marrable, 74, died in September 2019 as the result of more than 100 fire ant bites while a resident at the Eagles Nest Community Living Center, a long-term residence facility for veterans near Atlanta.

Officials from the VA and Orkin and its parent company Rollins Inc. “failed to respond appropriately or reasonably to the fire ant infestation in Mr. Marrable’s room,” according to the lawsuit.

Marrable was “bitten over one hundred times despite” the defendants “being aware of prior ant infestation issues at Eagle Nest CLC, the ineffectiveness of prior investigative efforts into the origins of the infestations, the failure of prior treatment or remediation efforts, the improper and inadequate use of certain chemicals, inadequate training and the risks, hazards and foreseeable harm from fire ant bites to patients, including Mr. Marrable” according to the lawsuit.

The suit was filed by Marrable’s childrenLaquna Ross, Jamal Ratchford and Raquel Reed. The plaintiffs are seeking $10 million in compensatory damages against both the U.S. government and Orkin and an unspecified amount of punitive damages against both.

Marrable served in the Air Force from December 1962 until his honorable discharge in July 1968.


Gruesome details

According to the lawsuit:

Eagles Nest officials were aware of fire ant infestations as early as February 2019 and that “multiple” residents had been suffering fire ant bites or infestations by June 2019.

Marrable was bitten by fire ants on Sept. 2, 2019, and was washed off and moved to another room.

After returning to his room, Marrable on Sept. 5 “was again attacked by another wave of fire ants, which again crawled across his room, into his bed and over and across his body, where again he was bitten dozens and dozens of times.”

Before the ant bites, Marrable was “lucid and alert” and “planning to live out his remaining months in peace, surrounded by loving friends and family.”

But after the bites, things changed.

The Sept. 2, 2019, “ant bite attack significantly weakened Mr. Marrable’s resolve and caused extreme pain, suffering, discomfort and anxiety. The second wave of fire ants that bit Mr. Marrable again over his arms, legs, trunk and groin proved too much for his weakened body and spirit to bear. Due to the effects of over a hundred insidious fire ant bites on his already cancer-weakened body, Mr. Marrable passed away prematurely on Sept. 7, 2019.”

Eagle Nest staff were negligent in failing to: prevent the fire ant infestation; remove insect-attracting food from patient rooms; and keep the rooms clean. Orkin officials were negligent in failing to provide “appropriate and adequate pest control services” at the time.

VA officials declined comment on the lawsuit.

The Atlanta VA Health Care System continues to mourn the loss of Joel Marrable,” said Gregory Kendall, a spokesman, in an email to Military Times. “We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. However, we do not comment on pending litigation.”

Orkin officials say they are reviewing the issues raised in the lawsuit.

“We only became aware of this lawsuit yesterday afternoon, and we are reviewing the case,” said an Orkin spokesperson in an email to Military Times. “Based upon our initial review, our records indicate we were only hired to perform limited exterior pest control services for some of the campus during 2019 and were not hired to perform interior pest control services. We will continue our review, and most importantly, our thoughts remain with this Veteran’s family.”

Outrage and change

After the incident first became public, lawmakers expressed concerns and major changes were made by VA officials.

Then-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he was “shocked, horrified and downright maddened” by reports that one dying veteran was bitten more than 100 times by the insects and at least two other patients also suffered ant bites before staff at the Eagle’s Nest Community Living Center made any changes.

“This patient, at the end of his life, was clearly not being monitored closely enough,” Isakson said at the time. “I am so sad for his family who had to discover his insect-infested conditions before anything was reportedly done.”

In the wake of Marrable’s death, Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone announced several actions VA took in response to recent events at Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center and ongoing issues at other VA facilities in that region.

Among other actions, the director of the regional network was placed on immediate administrative leave, a new director was named and all personnel involved in reporting urgent issues were retrained.

In addition, VA officials decided to knock down the Eagles Nest CLC facility and move patients to another one, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year.

VA officials announced the permanent closing of the building housing the Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center (CLC) “after determining the building is no longer suitable for residential patient care,” according to a media release issued in December. “The Atlanta VA Health Care System is making plans to rebuild a state-of-the art facility in the metro-Atlanta area and increase long-term care beds at the Atlanta VA’s Trinka-Davis Veterans Village.”

“There is no excuse for what happened to this veteran,” said Brewster S. Rawls, an Army veteran and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “Not only was his life — and his family’s time with him shortened, but the misery of his last days is beyond description.”

Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.

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